A Discussion with Tom Jones, Ambassador-at-Large and Senior Leadership Team member, Habitat for Humanity International

With: Thomas Laird Jones

October 12, 2011

Background: Tom Jones worked with the Berkley Center soon after it began, with a joint December 2006 dorum on faith and housing. He also participated in the first Luce-supported conference and his earlier interview was in preparation for that meeting. This discussion with Katherine Marshall and Michael Bodakowski in Washington on October 12, 2011 reflected on both Habitat for Humanity’s experience in its intended expansion to interfaith work and the follow-up to Berkley Center reflection on its five-year research and policy work on development and religion. He concludes that the event launched a train of events whose impact has been significant, much of it taking forms that were not anticipated.

What have been some highlights of your work with Habitat since our last conversation in 2008? From your perspective, what was the follow-up to the Forum on housing that we organized in December, 2006?

The joint Berkley Center/Habitat for Humanity forum that we organized on faith cooperation around shelter was in 2006, almost five years ago. I believe that it was one of the first meetings held at the Berkley Center. The forum has been extremely useful to us at Habitat. In a sense, it has been a springboard for much of the interfaith work that we do today.

As you recall, the forum had three basic themes:

(a) First, you [Katherine] set out the broader context of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for ending poverty as a framework for the discussion.

(b) Then Habitat for Humanity presented a paper that argued for the importance of housing as a core issue toward ending poverty, which also set the context for the meeting. There are a lot of legitimate issues to face if we are going to overcome poverty in the world, but at the end of the day, whether you talk about education, health, economic development, jobs, sustainability, or almost anything else, if people do not have a decent place to live, it undermines all the other issues. Shelter really is a core issue if we are going to overcome poverty.

(c) And underlying both the MDG and housing discussions was a concern for interfaith understanding and cooperation.

A year before the forum, I was charged to be the point person within Habitat for Humanity International for interfaith exploration and relations. I was asked by our then HFHI Board Chair, Nic Retsinas and by our CEO, Jonathan Reckford, to do an exploration of interfaith opportunities. This was to be done without any preconceived notions. The only limitation at the outset was (merely to keep the exploration to “bite size”) that we should focus only on the three “so-called” major monotheistic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). (Nic Retsinas has served as Assistant Secretary for Housing and Federal Housing Commissioner at the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. He is now at the Harvard Business School as a professor, and director emeritus for the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard.)

By the time we got to the December interfaith forum, I had been involved in interfaith networking for about a year. I had interviewed many of the perceived major faith leaders. Early on, the hypothesis evolved that the three major faiths (later also confirmed in other faiths) all shared a common call that was at the very heart of their faiths: to care for the poor; and all had long traditions of meeting the call to address poverty with shelter being a central issue.

The basic purpose of the forum, from our point of view, was to test that hypothesis. We had identified three prominent faith leaders: Rabbi David Saperstein (director of the Religious Action Center of Reformed Judaism), Ambassador Akbar Ahmed (head of Islamic Studies at American University), and Jim Wallis (founder and CEO of Sojourners). The unanimous consensus among these preeminent thinkers, and from all of the participants, who also included Bob Edgar (former CEO of the National Council of Churches, presently the CEO of Common Cause) and Bill Lesher (Chair of the Parliament of Religions), was that our hypothesis was absolutely correct.

With that information and affirmation, the group then discussed the challenge “where do we go from here?”

We decided that we ought to find meaningful ways to symbolize these three faiths working together on both the national and international stages. We were then able to follow through at least to a degree. As an example, the CEO of Habitat for Humanity, Jonathan Reckford, was the keynote speaker the next year at the Islamic Society of North America convention. What emerged was a global vision (that I am still excited and talking about): wouldn’t it be wonderful if the world could see these three faiths working together, and advocating together, towards ending poverty in the world, with housing as a core issue?

Further, we agreed that the key to answering the question: “where do we go from here” would be to move toward urging the organization of interfaith groups in local communities. The purpose of these groups would be to work together to end poverty in the local community, with a central focus of decent housing for all persons. All participants at the forum agreed to use their networks to begin to ‘live into’ interfaith groups in local communities around the world. Habitat took that seriously. Habitat CEO Jonathan Reckford wrote a strong message that we sent to our entire Habitat global network.

We in Habitat soon realized that from the standpoint of local Habitat for Humanity entities, we needed to provide some practical means to help.

What forms did this “greater direction” take?

To give local groups a stronger foundation and framework, we started to work on what we called an interfaith toolkit. As we lived into the toolkit, it ultimately became an interfaith advocacy toolkit for local communities. We really did tie the toolkit to the forum done with the Berkley Center. The foreword by our CEO is actually a report of the forum and its importance, including the leadership of Katherine Marshall and the Berkley Center. The core of the toolkit grew from the results of a pretty thorough survey of the Habitat world, globally. We learned from our survey that if we really want to be serious about starting interfaith groups, there are eight steps that you need to follow, which break down to three parts. They include: how to organize a group in ways resulting in the kind of respect and appreciation which has potential for on-going effective work together, how a group puts its faith into action, and how a group can stay together to advocate toward overcoming poverty housing in its own local community. I often quote Akbar Ahmed: “Don’t just sit around and talk about Abraham. Get out and do something!”

We were surprised to learn through our survey that many Habitat for Humanity groups around the world had already started interfaith work, mostly though building Habitat for Humanity houses. But what we discovered had not happened that is crucial to the work we are doing is that groups, though they organized themselves, did good Habitat builds, and maybe even came back together to do subsequent builds, but they tended to stop with the builds. They did not expand their interfaith cooperation to other areas. We recognized that if we are really going to solve the problem of poverty and shelter, then we have to advocate to change the will and minds of the world, starting with our own groups.

We therefore decided to put that idea into the framework of our interfaith work, with the hope and the prayer that in the future local Habitat entities will organize permanent interfaith community groups that will not only come together and respect each other, and who will also put their faith to action via interfaith Habitat builds, but because of deepening commitment to overcome poverty housing in the world will want to stay together to advocate toward overcoming poverty in their communities. We want their cooperation experience to convince them they should stay together to work together—to advocate—toward ending poverty housing in their local communities and beyond.

This is still very much a work in progress.

In spring 2011, at our national Habitat for Humanity conference in Atlanta, with over 2,000 Habitat leaders (from the U.S. and Canada) present, we launched the project by introducing the Habitat for Humanity Interfaith Toolkit. In sharing the toolkit with our four Habitat International area vice presidents (Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America) we realized that we needed to adapt the interfaith toolkit for international use. Thus, mostly using information gleaned from our international colleagues, we developed an international version of the toolkit.

Recently, in Bangkok, I introduced the international toolkit through two major events: one was the Asia Housing Forum jointly sponsored by Habitat for Humanity and the International Red Cross, which brought together 750 housing leaders (only 150 from Habitat) from 37 countries; the second was the Asia Habitat for Humanity Area Leadership Conference (one is held every two years for each one of our areas).

Both the U.S. and the international toolkits are available online. However, we find that in many settings it is better to have hard copies, though our resources to fund printing of multiple copies are limited. The toolkits have been well received, but it will be slow living into full implementation, given the nature and sensitivities of the issues.

At the same time, we are organizing a national interfaith advisory group to try to figure out how to introduce and use the Habitat interfaith toolkit in local communities. We are committed to recruit other faith groups, moving beyond the three traditions. Hindus have appealed to us not to speak any longer about non-monotheistic faiths, but “non-Abrahamic.” The personal representative to the Dalai Lama is interested as well. Thus we are moving increasingly beyond three original focus faiths. We are finding that almost all faiths really do have a calling to care about the poor. This is not syncretism; nobody gives up their beliefs; we work together, each from our own beliefs and teachings.

Within Habitat, it sounds as if to a large extent there is a continuity in leadership that helps to move this forward. Is that a major factor?

Strong leadership has been important in bringing our work to where it is today. Each successive chair of the Habitat for Humanity International Board of Directors has been supportive, as has been and are the other national and international members of our board. Our CEO, Jonathan Reckford, and our other senior global Habitat staff have been and are very supportive.

Has the drive for interfaith work maintained steady in Habitat?

We are living into our interfaith commitment as an evolving, undergirding reality. We want the world to know that Habitat for Humanity, as a Christian organization, believes that every person should have a safe, decent place to live. Our faith-call is to be totally inclusive, committed to interfaith work together with all other faiths who also have calls to care about the poor, toward every person having a safe, decent home.

During our previous conversation, we spoke about collaboration in the context of the December 2008 Parliament of the World’s Religions. Have you seen much cooperation with the large interfaith organizations like the Parliament?

I am not sure exactly what has happened to the hope we shared for a significant event in Melbourne, Australia. Charlie Ayco, a key HFHI staff person in our Asia Pacific office was at the Parliament, and reported good participation in the Habitat-led workshops.

Overall, our engagement with the interfaith organizations (Religions for Peace, United Religions Initiative, as well as the Parliament), has been fairly limited. A part of the reason for that is limited time, another is simply not having the contacts. One thing that we learned from our surveys, at least with local communities, is that we probably do better organizing interfaith groups if we recruit people specifically for that. If we work through already established interfaith groups, they have their own agendas and skeletons in their closets.

We face the problem that everyone’s plate is so overloaded. Habitat served over 83,000 families last fiscal year (with new homes, renovated homes, or major repairs ), over 220 families per day, moving into their own simple, decent homes, world-wide; that is about five times what we were doing five years ago. This fall we dedicated in Kenya the five hundred thousandth house provided by Habitat; the same day we started the five hundred thousand and first house in Patterson, NJ. I think there is real commitment to this whole interfaith process as we start the second half million homes, and I think we will continue to live into it.

In interfaith work, what role does Habitat’s Christian heritage play?

Habitat is into interfaith as a housing expert, and not as the Christian expert. Even though Habitat is a strongly Christian organization, if we go into a build from that perspective, we can scare others. We have been careful not to proselytize. We have a paper coming forward with a strong non-proselytizing statement for everything we do.

Does Habitat have a clear definition of what it considers proselytizing?

I think the paper will discuss that. In the international edition of our interfaith toolkit, the Egyptian leader who wrote the preface emphasized that we do not proselytize. When I personally talk about our mission, I say that we are a non-doctrinaire organization. The only doctrine we have is that if you don’t have a Habitat bumper sticker on your car, you are living in sin!

Our new board-approved Core Documents highlight that Habitat is a strong Christian organization. We are designing a new five-year plan for 2014-2018, and we are going to let God take the lead on where the strategy goes.

We talked at one stage about case studies on Habitat’s work. Where does that stand?

Habitat globally has done some case studies. As far as our interfaith work, here is where we now stand now.

With our national interfaith advisory group, we have decided that, at the outset, we are going to try to identify five communities in the United States where there is good potential to recruit committed persons from various faiths to an interfaith group. We seek a grant to do a one-year pilot in each of the five communities, including one that has already done some interfaith work, and one that has not yet done any interfaith work. We plan then to use the results to write case studies. We have a promise from a pre-eminent case writer that he will facilitate the writing of the cases. This all depends, of course, on success in getting the grant or grants. I want to emphasize again that all of this work and these ideas stems from the Berkley Center forum. Bringing people together, who are authorities in their field, is what can make a difference.

How far does Habitat work with immigrants using the lens of faith?

We are probably involved in that far more than any of us in the leadership knows or directs. It would happen with Habitat affiliates (as we call our local entities in the U.S.) and national organizations (the term most often used in other countries). My guess is that there is probably a lot going on; we serve the needs of people whoever they may be. That is our mission.

What is President Carter’s current involvement with Habitat?

President Carter is still our best-known volunteer. He turned 87 last Saturday. He and his wife will do the Jimmy and Roselyn Carter work project soon, as they have done for the past 28 years. This year and next year will both be in Haiti. The Carters have already committed to this. This will be the first time we have done the project in the same place in back-to-back years. Haiti, as I am sure you know, is a huge challenge right now. The project will be next month.

Turning briefly to your domestic work, when we start talking about advocacy, we cannot avoid talking about the political environment. How do you interact with the government, and does the government fund Habitat?

To be clear, we are careful with all money received from funders, including the government, but also other funders. We are careful that the funder does not have control of the programs or the policies by which we operate. When Habitat started, Habitat did not receive funding from the government (we had a founder who did not want to take government funds). But then, little by little, in the early 1990’s, we started including government as a partner. When Henry Cisneros was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, I worked with him and wrote a program we called SHOP (Self-help Homeownership Program) for money for land and infrastructure. Recently we have gotten into disaster response; we have a program called Section 4 for capacity building. Habitat is a leader in the current NRI (Neighborhood Revitalization Initiative). We no longer call our office in D.C. the Washington Office; it is now the Government Relations and Advocacy Office. We advocate for anything that will result in the elimination of poverty and provide decent housing for all persons. We do a lot of work with USAID abroad, and with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). We work hard to ensure that shelter is included as a key issue in legislation.

Why do you think shelter is so absent from the development agenda, as someone who has thought about these issues more than most?

I think part of it is that it is such a huge undertaking. Even in the Millennium Development Goals, there is little mention of shelter. Yet, some of us, including myself, think that shelter is a, if not the, core issue if we are going to solve poverty. The issues around shelter include financing and mortgage issues and land tenure and slum clearance and community-building and the like. In terms of housing for the poor, there is a big push to quit emphasizing home ownership and emphasize rental. This is fine for many people, but the way we look at it, there is important value in home ownership for the poor. First, families put their sweat equity into building a Habitat home; they have pride in their home. Further, the nurturing and education support that is Habitat’s way of operating continues well after the house construction is complete. New Habitat homeowners are in contact with their local Habitat affiliate every month, because they pay a mortgage. If an owner gets in trouble, Habitat does not throw them out of the house; they work with them to find a job, or in whatever they need. Habitat affiliates do not evict those who face difficulties in good faith and real desire to overcome difficulties. We don’t have the mortgage mess per se, as we have in the U.S. now. With rentals, that is advocated by some, that nurturing is missing.

As one anecdote, I represented Habitat as CEO at InterAction retreat one year, and sat there for two full days. Shelter was never mentioned. I was with some of the top people in development, folks that should know about the importance of shelter, and how it is related to all parts of development, but it was not mentioned. It is a puzzle.

People can visualize a build—the theology of the hammer, but the policy changes you need to address the underlying issues to reach the millions and improve their houses are not always clearly evident, even though almost all of us have the experience of dealing with homes in one way or another.

I wonder if the fact that most people do have experience with it (dealing with their own contractors, home repairs, etc.), makes policy makers stay away, because they do know how complicated it is.

When you get into advocacy, do you have to deal with the overall problem of the housing crisis?

Not necessarily. Our advocacy is from the standpoint of the poor, not on the actual bills. The levers are that we really do believe that the knowledge exists to solve the housing problem in the world; we believe that the resources are there, but what is missing is the will to provide decent housing for all persons. It is not just the will of the government, but also the will of faith groups, foundations, corporations, individuals, and so on. That is what advocacy is really about.

If you could wave a magic wand, what does Obama do on Monday to solve the housing problems?

On Monday, if Obama had a line in every one of his speeches on the importance of housing, that would help. I remember how hard we worked to get one line in each president’s State of Union speech!

So is a first step recognition of the problem?

Yes, recognition, but at the same time we are going to advocate for the specific programs that we know will make a difference. The last thing I did in the Washington Office was to put together a process, and manage the process by which we wrote an advocacy paper and got the Habitat international board of directors to approve it. A year ago I was asked to look at this document, five years after its approval, for a report to the board. I was amazed how far we have come! We had advocacy in the board’s strategic plan in the 1990s, but at that point, advocacy meant marketing the brand of Habitat. Marketing is fine and necessary, but that is not what advocacy is, in my opinion.

How much do you work with the Urban Institute?

Not very often. We tie in to their projects which affect housing for the poor. For example, some years ago we worked together to support inclusionary zoning which we find very useful toward more housing for the poor.

How about UN Habitat?

We worked hard to help them start the World Urban Forum in Istanbul, and then in Barcelona I signed an official memorandum of understanding with UN Habitat on behalf of Habitat for Humanity International, with Anna Tibaijuka, then director of UN Habitat. We have collaborated with them a lot; Anna was supposed to speak in Bangkok last month, but there was tornado in her hometown so she had to change plans. We have been instrumental in their World Habitat Day, and we’ve had a friendly argument over who got the name Habitat first; both organizations started the same year. I won’t say what the truth is! Anna was selected and agreed to serve on our international board, but now that she is has taken a position with the Ministry in Tanzania it’s not going to be possible. We have played major roles in all the UN Habitat World Urban Forums, most recently in Vancouver, Beijing, and Rio.

That’s a long answer to a short question—we are very much involved. Just last month, Habitat leaders went to New York to meet the new UN-Habitat director. Habitat for Humanity has consultative status with the UN, and several UN Habitat people were at our conference in Bangkok.

Looking at the MDGs, a focus for the November Capstone Conference, has Habitat made them a focus, given that the deadline of 2015 is only about three years away?

As we put it in context at the Berkley Center forum, we give allegiance to the MDGs, but I am not sure how consciously we focus on them. Shelter is one of the less emphasized issues, but it is linked to many of the MDGs (water and sanitation for example).

Last night I attended a film screening at the White House, called 58, from Isaiah 58 in the Bible, based on a book written by Scott Todd. It is, I think, a very good book. He finds that only seven percent of the population believes that we have diminished poverty; so that is 93 percent who do not. The truth is that we have halved poverty in the last ten years (falling from 52 percent to 26 percent—those living in extreme poverty). His whole theory is that it is possible to eliminate poverty, and that we can do it through the Christian Church (and he framed it within the MDGs). Christians in the U.S. make between one and two trillion dollars a year. If those who call themselves Christians would give 1 percent of that a year toward elimination of poverty, poverty could be eradicated in one generation. His is a very compelling argument, and I thought the movie was well done. It is going to screen in nearly 50 theaters tomorrow night. I’ve had a thought about taking this same line of thought to interfaith; bring all the faiths together that have a common calling to help the poor.

Some religious leaders are making their own efforts to bring attention to poverty, through fasting, and what they are calling the Circle of Protection. I want to emphasize that Habitat is non-partisan. Our political stance is to support whoever is in favor of housing for the poor.

As you say from the very beginning, housing does make a difference, not in a linear way, but through the changing of ideas; it is a meandering river; we do need to look back and see how far we have come.

We are convinced that the Berkley Center and its work with us has played a big role in where Habitat has come in our interfaith emphasis and towards making its commitment to ending poverty even stronger and more practical. We are very grateful to and for the Berkley Center and its leaders.

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